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Gun Rights on Trial: Statistics, Part 1

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A basic principle of freedom in society is that you are free until someone can prove a compelling governmental need to restrict your freedom. The greater the degree of restriction, the higher the burden of proof. We often see this idea in criminal justice, but it is also at the core of how we are supposed to legislate.

Illustration By: Brian Fairrington

If you want to take away a right, then you have to prove your case. The gun-control crowd tends to presume that its case is airtight and founded upon concrete facts and statistics. Advocates believe they have the moral and factual high ground, but they are mistaken. I am going to help you expose those errors. In Part 1, we will look at the main fallacies in gun statistics. In Part 2, we will tear down the most common statistical claims gun controllers offer.

Most people see themselves as objective consumers of information. When a contentious issue arises, they want to “cut through all the rhetoric” and look at the data. You have a claim? Neat. Show us your evidence. Proponents of gun control usually claim that their proposals are justified because those restrictions will reduce violence. They then rattle off a slew of statistical “facts” to support their claims, but they often choose and present those facts in a deceptive way.

Critical Fallacies

A common statistical claim from the anti-gun crowd contends that the United States is “the only developed nation with such high gun crime and gun death rates.” This statistical claim is absurd on its face. How are they defining “developed” nation? Why? How are they defining a “gun crime”? Why are they looking only at “gun crime” and not ALL violent crime? Is it somehow better to be bludgeoned to death with a hammer than shot? When a freight truck rams a gathering of people, is that somehow less dangerous than a gun?

This gets us into three critical fallacies in nearly all gun stats: cherry-picking, correlation/causation and apples to oranges.

I don’t like comparing countries because there are simply too many societal and legal differences — down to differences in data collection.

Cherry-Picking refers to intentionally selecting only a subset of evidence and omitting the rest of the evidence to mislead people into thinking a case is stronger than it is. The stronger the withheld evidence, the more fallacious the argument. So when you see stats that only look at “gun deaths” or “mass shootings” but not homicides or murders, you need to ask why.

Correlation/Causation is the fallacy in which someone wrongly assumes that if two variables move together or in sequence, one must be causing the other. Proving causation is really hard, especially when you have maybe a thousand factors playing into a problem like crime in a society.

Consider that as average global temperature has gone up over the last few centuries, the number of pirates has gone down. Perhaps, then, to fight “global warming,” we should invest heavily in piracy? So even when there are fewer guns and fewer murders in one country, that doesn’t actually tell us one caused the other.

Apples to Oranges is best explained with the following example: Different countries tally statistics in different ways. Some countries only count homicides or murders after there has been a conviction. Some countries (like ours) count them when a coroner declares a cause of death. Some countries omit whole regions and political subdivisions from their numbers. (When you look up stats for the United Kingdom, you are usually seeing England and Wales but not Scotland or Northern Ireland.) I don’t like comparing countries because there are simply too many societal and legal differences — down to differences in data collection. Comparing the whole 50 states and 300-plus-million humans in the U.S. to England and Wales is counterproductive.

When I tell you that X “children” are “killed each year by guns,” do you picture 4-year-olds or 19-year-olds? Most people picture 4-year-olds. While the deaths of 19-year-olds are certainly tragic, these numbers invariably also include “teens” who were violent felons killed during the commission of violent felonies.

Lost in Translation

Another problem in statistical claims is that words have meaning. We use words to draw distinctions and to paint mental images. When I tell you that X “children” are “killed each year by guns,” do you picture 4-year-olds or 19-year-olds? Most people picture 4-year-olds. While the deaths of 19-year-olds are certainly tragic, these numbers invariably also include “teens” who were violent felons killed during the commission of violent felonies.

These “teens” had some risk factors beyond simply occupying the same zip code as a gun. Similarly, “school shootings” conjure images of Newtown and Columbine, but we have seen recent stats that included events that merely happened near schools, sometimes even closed-down schools. When someone presents you with data, ask him or her to define and justify his or her terms.

‘Maybe’ Doesn’t Cut It

Statistics can help inform debates, but we have a duty to evaluate the merit and relevance of those statistics. The gun-control proponents claim that their proposals will reduce murder, but they need to prove their case — and they haven’t. The best they can offer is a “maybe,” and maybe isn’t good enough. We wouldn’t accept that for any other restriction on civil rights; we shouldn’t accept it on gun policy. We all want to bring the carnage down. I’m willing to help, but don’t lie to me to do it.

Jim is a concerned citizen and gun rights advocate. His opinions are his alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of his or any other agency. References and links to other gun advocacy sites do not imply endorsement of those organizations. He can be reached at Jim@tacticaltangents.com.

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